A very sad thing happened today. On Thursday evening I called our coordinator for our AIDS ministry to discuss a few issues with her before meeting one of our Home-Based Care groups on Friday. She told me that a family had been identified, a mother and father (both HIV-positive) who have recently had triplets. The children are one month old. The children could not be nursed as it is absolutely essential, when a mother is HIV-positive and nurses a baby, that the baby may not take any other food or liquid for the first six months, not even water, after which the child is put onto solids and then the baby may not be nursed at all anymore. With three children this is impossible.
However, when the family was found, the caregiver found out that the mother is feeding the children with thin maize porridge as she does not have money to buy milk formula. I was shocked when I heard this. On Friday morning I had a quick discussion with our coordinator about the situation and we decided that we would take responsibility for the children until they are at least six months old. We would buy the formula and bottles and everything else which is needed and will make sure that the children are fed properly. I went to a local pharmacy and arranged to have the correct formula ordered so that we could start caring for these children as from Monday.
At this point I need to share a remarkable incident, something which have happened to us a number of times in the past. Our budget does not really allow us to do things like this. Our income is too small and our expenses just too big. But we have learned to be open to the nudging of God when we need to do something like this and normally don’t spend much (and normally almost no) time on discussing where the money will come from. It’s not that my faith is so big. But God has taught us a few lessons over the past few years. In any case, when I arrived home on Friday and opened my email, I received a message that a group of students that had been with us in Swaziland had arranged to have money deposited into our account. At least now we know that we will be able to take care of the children.
And then, this morning, I got the news that one of the babies had died! Not because of HIV. Because of malnutrition. I was angry. I’d had a tough day, struggling to work through some bureaucratic red tape, both in South Africa and in Swaziland. But suddenly all my impatience seemed to vanish as I realized that these parents had lost a child, probably not because they did not care, but more probably because they lacked some basic knowledge and lacked the funds to be able to give their three children what they needed. I was angry at the injustice that seem to force certain people to do things that we would consider to be absolutely irresponsible. I was angry that we were not able to pick up this problem earlier.
The other two children are also suffering form malnutrition and have now been hospitalized. As soon as they leave the hospital, we will make sure that they are properly fed.
Last year I preached in a church (on World AIDS day). Afterwards I heard that a certain man who had been in the church was absolutely disgusted with the service, saying, amongst others, that AIDS was not his problem. The people who had it had made a choice and are suffering the consequences.
I wish I could take him to these children and ask him what they had done to deserve this.
I’ve just finished reading Alan Hirsch’s book: The Forgotten Ways. It’s a great book and highly recommended, but be warned: It’s not easy to read. I do most of my reading when I go to bed and I really struggled to work through this book, But it is worthwhile reading it.
In short, Alan wants the church to rediscover it’s true purpose, what he calls mDNA, or the Missional DNA of the church. At the core of the church of Jesus Christ is the desire to reach out to the world. Churches which are not doing this, are acting contrary to how God has wired the church.
I have obviously done a lot of reading on this topic, therefore I can’t say that I had many “aha!” experiences while reading the book. He does however emphasise many things and says it in a way, which, as I read it, I just wished that I could share this with everybody I know.
On page 235 he says something which I have suspected for some time but which he is convinced is the truth. Gordon Cosby, the leader of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., noted somewhere that in over sixty years of ministry, he has never seen that groups which are formed around a non-missional purpose (prayer, worship, Bible Study, etc) ever ending up becoming missional. It was only those groups which intended from the start to be missional (and usually embraced things like prayer, worship and Bible Study) that ended up doing it.
This corresponds with my own experience. It is impossible to calculate how many people have contacted me over the years with a request to get involved in our work in Swaziland. Usually the conversation goes something like this: “Hi, we are a cell group / Bible Study group / prayer group from xyz congregation and we have heard about your work in Swaziland. We feel that it is important for us to reach out to others and we would like to visit you to find out how we can assist you.”
Being a fairly positive person, I always invite them to come, but at the back of my mind I know that there is a more than 90% chance that nothing will come from the visit. The reason is simple. To be part of a cell group or Bible Study group asks a small investment of your time: 1 – 2 hours per week. And let’s be honest – these meetings are fun. Coffee and cookies are served. There’s a lot of time for interaction. And after worship and prayer you feel revived and ready to tackle the rest of the week.
Involvement in mission asks much more than that. On most Sundays I leave home at 8 in the morning and return home somewhere between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. And that’s just for a church service. Anything happening during the week involves a lot of driving – two hours at the very least – entering places which may make you feel uncomfortable, seeing things that are not nice to see, walking in the scorching sun. After their visit these groups have a lot to say about their experience and always promise to come back again, but more often than not we never hear from them again. They will return to their cell group / Bible Study group / prayer group and will probably never return to Swaziland.
If I have to say why this happens, then it boils down to a lack of vision. A group that is formed without a missional vision, will never be able to become missional. They will merely follow their vision and if it is not a missional vision, they will not become missional.
Is there a solution for the hundreds of thousands of cell and other groups meeting all over the world with the main intention to feed themselves (pun intended)? The only solution I can imagine is that the leader of the group make the decision to change the vision. That should not be to difficult as most of these groups do not have an official “vision”. They just follow the leader. But if the leader could convince them to determine their vision (which can be as simple as to answer the question: Why are we meeting every week?) and then convince them that the true purpose of the church lies in its calling to become a light for the world (or whatever other missional metaphor he or she wishes to use), it is possible that, over time, a group like this could really become missional, using their normal weekly meetings to build themselves up so that they could do more outside the church.
But that’s my optimistic side speaking. If I have to be realistic, I doubt whether any significant number of church groups will ever become missional.
Probably one of the most traumatic experiences a missionary can face, is to be informed that his or her support is going to be terminated. It is my guess that this will be happening again as the impact of the global financial crisis starts having greater effect on the income of missionary organisations and churches. Over the past week or so, I’ve received three messages from missionaries or mission support organisations, all mentioning that dark days may be lying ahead. Things like a global financial crisis or a depression are more or less out of the control of the church. I was reading a post today of someone who described how their church had kept on sharing their funds in spite of severely hard times that they went through. People who make faith decisions like this need to be honoured. It is also understandable that individuals who had supported missionaries in the past, may now be faced with the harsh reality that they need to decide whether they will continue with their support or not.
I do not know of a single missions organisation that do not need financial support. Long distances that need to be travelled, the harsh circumstances under which most missionaries are working amongst people who more often than not are themselves barely surviving, the lack of proper schooling, sicknesses and many other issues have the result that finances are needed to support those who are working as missionaries. When it comes to the point of support, I can think of a few things which need to be kept in mind if the work has to continue over an extended period of time.
First of all I think that it is not wise for one individual or one organisation to fund a missions project on their own. Supporters lose interest. Financial circumstances change. A variety of things may occur which makes it impossible for the individual or the organisation to continue with their support. What happens if the supporter dies unexpectedly? What happens if the supporter’s source of income falls away? If a potential supporter is convinced that a missions project is from God, then they need to discuss it with other partners and get them to invest financially in the project in order to establish some form of sustainable support.
Secondly, new projects need to be considered prayerfully and not emotionally. Now, this works both ways. I’ve seen many a project being started due to the convincing arguments given by a missionary. But if such a project is from God and the supporters are truly living in a relationship with God, then God himself can convince the supporters to fund the project. Gather people together to hear whether the new project is really from God. But the argument also has another side to it. I’ve seen many a missions project stopped because the supporters or supporting organisation used equally emotional arguments why the project could not be started. Sometimes a new project has to be started as a leap of faith. As long as we are convinced that it is what God wants us to do, we need not fear to take the next step.
Thirdly, supporters need to realise that they are working with people’s security when they make decisions about support. I once attended a meeting in advisory capacity where the future support of missionaries working in Asia was discussed. The congregation was not going through a particularly tough time, but they did need to do some renovations to their own property. They then suggested that the missionary’s support be cut by 50%. I had trouble to control myself, asking the meeting where they wanted the missionary and his family to cut on their own budget. Their rent was fixed. Water and electricity was fixed. School fees for the children were fixed. The only place where they could cut, was on their monthly groceries. By cutting their subsidy, this family was effectively being told to eat less if they wanted to remain in Asia. The sad news is that the cut was approved. The good news is that individuals then started supporting the family with even more than the reduction in the subsidy.
Financial support for missions is an extremely sensitive issue. I am aware that some missionaries misuse funds. But on the whole, most of them are stretching the funds to cover much more than would ever be possible on the home front. Whether you want to start supporting a missionary or whether you are starting to feel the pinch and considering to withdraw your support, don’t do it without seriously praying about this and discussing options with Christian friends you trust.